Unexpected Lessons

I used to think my lessons were pretty well student centred – my classes played games, did lots of work in groups and could make choices at various points along the way. With the introduction of iPads at my school and the call to make as much use of them as possible, I’ve realised my idea of student centeredness didn’t go far enough. I was still making all the calls about what was covered how and when and how the students would demonstrate their learning. Since I’ve started consciously looking for ways to move forward and make changes towards more student constructed learning I have noticed many changes, not least among them that my students seem happy and engaged even on a Friday afternoon. But there have been other changes as well. Students seem to better remember the language they have chosen to find or use, are more creative with their use of language and seem generally more “switched on”. But the biggest change so far is one I was not specifically looking for, nor expecting, and one which will likely not lead to better measurable scores in any testing or assessments.

When I was studying for my Grad. Dip. Ed we were told (lectured) that there was the normal curriculum – the body of knowledge and content we would be expected to pass on to those we taught – and a so-called “hidden” curriculum – the values and expectations we would pass to our students not explicitly, but through example and our reactions to behaviours and situations. We were told that this “hidden” curriculum was important, but in reality little attention was paid to it for the remainder of my course and it seemed to remain hidden and beneath the surface.

With the introduction of the AITSL standards and the Australian Curriculum, however, I now argue that many of the things formerly ‘hidden’ are now part of the ‘normal’ up front curriculum. But when time is already short and we struggle to cover all the necessary topics, language, grammar etc, it can be difficult to specifically plan out how and when some of these other things be covered.

The beauty of a student centred learning environment is that the teacher is very mobile, involved in offering advice rather than filling an empty vessel with knowledge. No longer is it possible that I stand at the front of the room, white board marker in hand or walk between rows of evenly spaced desks. Nor is it expected that students will hand write everything in an exercise or work book  – rather they are creating all sorts of texts using a variety of media and technologies. Because students are working together and I am moving among them and because they are creating rather than just absorbing language, some of the hidden curriculum seems to have become far less hidden and is definitely getting some air time!

For example, when students are using pictures to illustrate their work in whatever form, there is a natural place for discussion and learning about plagiarism and how it extends beyond copying a passage of written text to the misguided use of an image found via Google. Such discussions taken out of context would seem forced and potentially turn students off, but when they arise from the activity and learning of the moment, they are without ceremony and seem to make more of an impact. I love that my students are now more likely to use a camera or a drawing program and create their own images!

Likewise, Google Translate, usually the cause of language teachers letting out a collective groan of  horror… In not ‘banning’ my students from using it we have had reasons and moments to discuss why it doesn’t generally work if they type in a whole sentence. We’ve discussed the cultural context of language because GT automatically uses the formal ‘Sie’ form of you in German, which is not appropriate if one is trying to communicate with a friend or family  member. So most students now use it like a dictionary – one word at a time as they need to – and just like a big old Collins dictionary, they need to sift through the options to find the most appropriate one for the context.

Even a game played in small groups with butchers paper and textas can lead to these moments. An inappropriate picture drawn as part of the game resulted in a quick, quiet but effective discussion about sexual innuendo and the harassment issues associated with that – after all, a school is the students’ workplace. Had I not been moving around helping the groups I would either not have seen it or someone else would have drawn unwanted attention to it and caused more of a fuss for all concerned!

It is these unexpected lessons that I am finding most rewarding with my students at this time of year. This learning won’t be measured in their reports, but it will go with them beyond the classroom and into the real world, where the consequences for not learning them are much more dire.

I wonder, what other unexpected lessons are occurring out there? If you use social media with your classes are you naturally ‘covering’ cyber safety? Is this perhaps a way beyond lecturing en masse via a guest speaker? Are others experiencing similar discussions?

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